TIME TO JUST DO IT

It used to be said that any man (old saying) that sits back at the scene of a crime or an obvious and blatant injustice and does nothing to prevent the travesty, but could have, is just as guilty as the perpetrator themselves. 

Short of making bricks from recycled newspapers The Union has done what it could--it has generously given voice to this clear and present danger. 

I guess that leaves it to the County government whose number one job is supposed to be public safety. Leaving folks out in the cold and dark is not safe for anyone. The county could be part of the solution starting tomorrow. They have had a lease in front of them for over two years now and they do far too little. They have done numerous studies that virtually no one has read. I can’t even get through them all. 

Dying from exposure is a tangible concern for Nevada County's homeless, and occurs with shameful regularity. Those that make it through the winters are still confronted with a life expectancy of about fifty years— less that two-thirds the lifespan of the average American. And this is to speak nothing of quality of life—our county's homeless contract disease, struggle with mental illness, and face abuse and assault at rates drastically higher that the average American. 

Unfortunately, we have become too passive and complacent with our neighbors' suffering. Though many exceptional organizations and individuals have worked tirelessly to support our homeless population, the vast majority of citizens and most of our elected representatives have opted instead to look the other way; at best, anticipating the perfect solution, and at worst, believing "bootstrap" myths of social mobility. 

If nothing changes, however, history suggests that individuals may well literally freeze to death in the next year or so. When that happens, who will bare the moral responsibility? Will inaction in the face of injustice make you morally culpable? To what extent is passively allowing your neighbor to decease in the elements indistinguishable from actively killed them yourself? 

Real people's lives are at stake, and after all, inaction toward any issue is still a form of action. To decide what constitutes right and ethical action, consider the four questions below, read through our logic if you'd like, and decide on an answer for yourself. 

1- Do you have a role in solving this problem, or is it completely someone else’s? 

Obviously, no one individual can involve himself or herself in every issue. We pick and choose based on our interests, abilities, fears, convenience, and obligations. Yet, we also know that people have an onus to take action on issues they would otherwise prefer to ignore. It is illegal to witness and not report child abuse in California, for instance. So, legally speaking, the acceptability of inaction can be based on a witness' knowledge, and a victim's capabilities. You may know nothing about fighting and hate confrontation, but if you cross one small child bullying another, you will likely step in and help. Here, the acceptability of inaction comes down to proximity, relative power, and the fact that no one would have stepped in if you had not. 

Is homelessness close to you in proximity, figuratively or literally? Is there someone else, if not you? To what extent can the victims solve the problem without your help? 

2- To what extent are we responsible for the problem? 

There is lots and lots of precedence where injustice in front of us is passively treated. But I don’t think that we should just talk about the ”studies” that have already been done while so many of our fellow citizens are suffering. I can’t even get through the plethora of previously created Nevada County homeless studies, can you? They all get around to, “We’d like to do these things, but we can’t really afford them.” Therefore, when it comes to getting something done the only solution is “What do the citizens want to volunteer to do?” Everything else is academic. As proven around the country, the citizens want to get together and make tiny house villages with and for the homeless. It’s participatory, it’s meaningful, and it’s fun. Then set them up in a functional and successfully managed village. The tiny village concept is being successfully implemented around the country saving both money and lives. 

Nevada County residents, so far, appear to have three central concerns. The first has to do with money. People are understandably worried that an Opportunity Village for the homeless might end up diverting funding from important county or city programs that are already financially stretched. Fortunately, this model is designed to be totally expense free for our county and city governments. Moreover, there is plenty of reason to believe it could actually save the county a considerable amount of money. In 2012, the HUD secretary estimated that a homeless individual living on the streets cost taxpayers about $40,000 a year, and data suggests that this is actually a conservative estimate! Without the stability of a home and the dignity it provides, homeless are prone to "randomly ricochet through very expensive services," according to Philip Mangano, former head of US Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Bush and policy advisor under President Obama. However, multiple studies have confirmed that providing formally homeless individuals with supportive housing can easily reduce their cost to the public by over three-quarters. I cannot think of a reason why Nevada County would be different? 

The second has to do with a fear for safety, and a worry about liability. In this view, placing a few dozen individuals together, some of whom may suffer from mental illness and addiction, is simply asking for trouble. In a sense, the folks are correct: there will be problems, and maybe big ones. But that is life. What's more, the same issues that will inevitably arise in an Opportunity Village are going on as we speak in the forested tent encampments around the county—the only difference is that they will be more visible, and more difficult to ignore. In fact, the simple convenience of a tiny home and access to basic facilities—a door that locks, for instance—goes a long way in preventing the kind of crime and chaos that people fear will occur because of such a village. No doubt fire is a real concern. Many of the local fires of late have been created by homeless people in the woods. 

Finally, there is the concern that helping the homeless is slippery slope toward creating a welfare state, and that putting a roof over their head would threaten the ethic of hard work and discipline. Though I imagine few possess the audacity to claim it allowed, a brazen remark made by a particular county supervisor to the effect of "an Opportunity Village would encourage people to be homeless" leads me to believe this opinion is fairly common. Even if I were able to callous my empathy and sympathize with this view in theory, it is utterly disingenuous in practice, and reflects a profound and alarming ignorance about the issue of homelessness. For the vast majority of individuals, homelessness has nothing to do with hard work. Domestic violence, childhood abuse, mental illness, unemployment, and a lack of affordable housing are all far and away more relevant factors. Additionally, if keeping people in their own homes is indeed a priority, then providing supportive housing, which has a proven track record of alleviating chronic homelessness, should actually be prioritized, as opposed to shunned. 

Would building an Opportunity Village require sacrificing any other morals? 

3- Do you have too much to lose by taking action? 

One would hardly blame a person who refrained from running across I-80 during rush hour to save a stray cat. Though it would have been a selfless act, there would have simply been too much to lose, and inaction in this instance would be perfectly acceptable. 

Is the homeless situation in Nevada County an analogous example? 

4- Will taking action be helpful and effective? 

Undoubtedly, inaction toward a problem can be justified if the alternative action does nothing to solve the problem... 

The reality is that idea of the tiny-house community is fairly new, and thus, we lack mountains and mountains of empirical data to assist in answering this question. We do know, however, that supportive housing, at its most general level, can be enormously beneficial in pulling individuals out of chronic homelessness. We also know that cities around the nation are rapidly embracing this model. Reports so far have been overwhelmingly positive, particularly from the more heavily studied Opportunity Village in Eugene, which is serving as our primary village prototype. Finally, we know that this model, albeit new, is incredibly robust. The houses are easily constructed and mobile, allowing a community to stay intact and individuals housed even as it shifts geographically to accommodate changes. With input from community leaders and even the homeless themselves, we will do our best to cater this specific village to the needs of this community. In Eugene, management has asked three people to leave. Their girlfriends remained. The women felt they had no choice but to stay when they lived in the woods. They needed the “protection”. Many people once they got their feet on the ground segued out voluntarily to jobs, to housing, and to a better life. 

Often overlooked, however, is the potential an Opportunity Village has to benefit the community at large. Unregulated, yet already over policed homeless encampments in the woods pose an extreme fire hazard to our community, which is already plagued by wildfires ever year. Homeless encampments also often have serious negative environment impacts through improper waste disposal and trash generation. 

In action can no longer be a responsible option. Let’s be responsible, let’s do something.

Charles Durrett (53) 265-9980

Dominic Castro-Wehr (530) 913-5386